Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Review: 'The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales' by Kate Mosse

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

A wonderfully atmospheric collection of stories from one of our most captivating writers, inspired by ghost stories, traditional folk tales and country legends from England and France. These tales are richly populated by spirits and ghosts seeking revenge; by grief-stricken women and haunted men coming to terms with their destiny - all rooted deep in the elemental landscapes of Sussex, Brittany and the Languedoc.

Review

"I hear someone coming. 

It has happened before. I pause and listen but no longer hear anything. I sigh. As always, hope is snatched away before it can take root. And so then, as always, I am carried back to that first December so very long ago..." [The Mistletoe Bride]

I don't read a lot of short story collections.  I don't even remember the last time that I picked one up without it being required reading for some course or other.  I grabbed this particular collection last year before Christmas alongside Mystery in White by Jefferson J. Farjeon, mainly because I've read a few books by Kate Mosse and have always enjoyed them, particularly her Languedoc trilogy.  To be honest, it was half price with Mystery in White and I don't even know if I was convinced when I bought it that I'd get round to reading it within the year(ish).  I dug it out this winter and even then only started it because it was in the living room when I wanted something to read and my other book was somewhere else in the house.  Lazy but true.  I figured I could read a story or two without 'spoiling' my focus on my other book (I'm usually a monogamous reader).  I read the opening story, The Mistletoe Bride, and absolutely loved it.  Haunting and sad and evocative.  I hurriedly finished up my other book and set upon giving these stories my full attention.

I know that it's a phrase that's bandied about with probably too much regularity but the writing in The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales (which I'm going to just call The Mistletoe Bride) really is poetic.  The stories are all pretty short (most are between ten and about 30 pages) but the writing is rich and spellbinding, making them feel longer and more indulgent.  I really took my time reading them, going back over the story in a couple of cases to nose out finer details that I'd missed on the first reading but that seemed glaringly obvious when I'd read the ending.

My wariness about reading short stories is that I usually just find them less satisfying than a full novel, feeling as though the ideas aren't fleshed out enough or that I don't spend enough time with a character to really care about them.  That absolutely wasn't the case with this collection.  I was astounded by how much Mosse has packed each tale.  Although the style of the writing is constant in a lot of ways, each story has a distinct tone and atmosphere (perhaps because this is a compilation of stories rather than a collection all written at the same time).  The Revenant is set in Sussex 1955 and somehow it just feels...right and completely different to The Drowned Village, say, that is set in Brittany in 1912.  I even found myself engaging with characters over a short space of time.  The last story in the collection, Ghost of Christmas Past is a mere 7 pages long and I welled up as I was reading the last page.

The Mistletoe Bride.
Find more here
What I particularly like about the way this collection has been put together is that each story starts with an illustration panel that perfectly set the scene and concludes with an 'Author's Notes' section, giving some background on where Mosse got the inspiration for the story or what she was trying to evoke.  The titular story, The Mistletoe Bride, for example, starts with the eerie image on the right and finishes up with a note detailing how Mosse was inspired to write the poignant story by a version that she had read as a child in a book of folklore owned by her parents.  Some are inspired by beautiful historic buildings that she has visited or places that intrigued her as a child.  Even if you aren't at all interested in the background to the stories, the notes are pretty handy pointers of where to look if you want to read more about the featured folklore or myth.  

If I had one (very minor) criticism, it would be that the ghostly thread linking the stories can make them feel a little predictable if you read too many all in one go.  I found that up to three at a time was about the right dose. For the most part, these are ghost stories and chain reading just made me feel like I was playing a game of 'Spot the Ghost'.  Niggle aside, these really are perfect for spreading over a few frosty nights where you don't mind the occasional chill up the spine.

Overall:  A beautiful collection with stunning writing that I would recommend to fans of historical fiction or ghost stories or myths or folklore.  If you don't normally read short stories, this collection is still absolutely worth giving a go.  There weren't any stories that I didn't like and while I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to call myself a short story convert, these have convinced me to give collections a go when they're written by an author I trust.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Date finished: 29 December 2015
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre: Fiction; Short Story Collection
Pictured Edition Published:  in October 2014 by Orion Books

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Things That Made Me Happy This Week #5

This week has been kind of gross.  I've had a cold and lost my voice (which honestly before this week I didn't even really believe was an actual thing) and work's been so hectic that I haven't really had any down time (although I have been working from home, which was really necessary both for me and my colleagues who don't need to catch whatever disgusting thing I've had).  All the more important to take some time to pick out some highlights.

1.  My Christmas tree and other festive treats.  Last weekend, we put up our Christmas tree and it's little twinkly lights have been keeping my living room feeling cheery ever since.  Plus, while hunting for our box of decorations, I took the opportunity to dig out some of my more festive reads from my stash of books that are residing in the loft until they can be safely shelved early next year.  I've already read and reviewed Mystery in White by Jefferson J. Forjeon and I'm saving The Mistletoe Bride by Kate Mosse for next week.  Neither are the usual warm and fuzzy Christmas literary fodder but I'm not that much of a fan of contemporary reads so these suit me just fine.

2.  The Ballroom by Anna Hope.  I loved Wake when I read it earlier this year and I was unbelievably excited to get an ARC of Hope's new novel.  It's set in an asylum on the Yorkshire moors in 1911 and I'm pretty certain that it will break my heart but the writing and atmosphere are stunning so ]tears will be a fair price.

3.  Christmas partying.  I'm lucky enough to work with a great group of people.  We had our Christmas party on Friday and it was a lot of fun.  Saturday morning was less so (damn you, open bar!) but getting to scoff pigs in blankets and drink gin with my work buddies was worth it.  We have another outing next Friday for just my team so I'm expecting more merriment then!

4.  Gift buying.  I love shopping for gifts for people!  I've done pretty much all of my Christmas shopping now and I've got a wrapping date with my best friend next weekend so that we can drink some wine, watch something festive (Love Actually, hopefully) and wrap up all of our gifts. 

5.  Curry, Malbec and Die Hard.  Ellie Lit Nerd was tweeting about Die Hard last week (I think...) and it gave me a craving to watch the film again that has loitered all week.  Last night, I cooked a pretty fierce beef madras, we cracked open a delicious bottle of wine and popped in the DVD.  It was an awesome evening and the perfect way to spend the day after a Christmas party.

Share your happy with the group through Ellie at Lit Nerd!  #sharethehappy

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Thoughts on Fables: Volume 01 from a Comic Newbie

I've always been pretty wary of comics.  I never really got into them when I was younger and might have been a little less obsessive about making sure that my comic reading was just so.  I have a thing about series and making sure that I read things in the "right" order.  It was a source of much discussion when Boyfriend and I first got together whether we should embark on the Star Wars films in the order they were released or so the story was in chronological order (we went with the story being in chronological order).  The world of comics always intimidated me because I was gravely concerned about 'getting it wrong', especially with long-running series where there are all kinds of story arcs and spin-offs and whatnot.  

I've been eyeing up Fables for a while.  I've read a couple of graphic novels this year (also a first for me) and I've really enjoyed them.  The next logical step seemed comics and Fables was a series I'd seen mentioned all over a whole range of blogs.  I put it on my wishlist, thinking that one day I'd give it a try and then the great and lovely Bex sent it to me for my birthday.  I'm so glad she did.  

The premise is pretty awesome.  A whole host of fairytale and nursery rhyme characters have been chased out of their world by the Adversary and are settled in modern day New York.  The community is led by Old King Cole, with Snow White acting as his deputy.  Bigby Wolf (of Red Riding Hood fame) heads up the security/crime division.  In this first volume that bundles together the first five issues, Snow White's sister, Red Rose, is missing and presumed dead and Bigby Wolf is tasked with finding out what happened.  Folklore meets detective fiction - what's not to like?

As my first comic experience, it was a superb one.  There are a couple of artists adding gorgeous illustrations to Bill Willingham's words and the effect is quite something.  Separating each issue is a double spread illustration that has a completely different look to those that bring Willingham's characters to life.  I think what surprised me was the more...adult content.  There's sex, a smidgen of violence and some swearing.  I thought it would feel awkward and it didn't.  The text and the illustrations fit together perfectly and I was able to get into the story.

I've read that this is sometimes billed as a comedy.  There is some humour and I did find it entertaining reading but I definitely wouldn't go so far as to describe it as a comedy.  I don't know what I would describe it as but not a comedy.  I actually cared about the mystery so it works on that level.  It's tongue in cheek about its fantasy elements so it fits neatly into that genre too without being too twee about it.  In short: if you like fairytales and you want to play 'spot the reference' while getting to enjoy a good old-fashioned murder mystery, Fables is for you.

I'm still a little bit worried about not quite getting the order right but I have a guide on a good reading order saved to my phone and I think I'm safe to just keep reading until Volume 06 so I'll definitely be carrying on with Fables.  It's a lot of fun and it's top notch escapism so if you've been considering comics but haven't had a clue where to start (like me), this is as good a place as any.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Review: 'Mystery in White' by Jefferson J. Farjeon

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

On Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. Several passengers take shelter in a deserted country house, where the fire has been lit and the table laid for tea – but no one is at home.

Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers are seeking to unravel the secrets of the empty house when a murderer strikes in their midst.

Review

I bought Mystery in White in a pique of festivity last year.  I'm led to believe that I'm far from alone in helping this 1930s crime story creep back into the limelight.  It saddens me that this wonderful little book has been out of print for years but I'm so glad that it's getting a revival.

What I love about books from the glory days of crime writing of Christie and Sayers, and what I loved about Mystery in White, is that the stories are intriguing and can keep you guessing without being so unsettling that you nearly rip your curtains off their poles trying to shut out the world and its darkness.  I'll admit that the actual mystery part of Mystery in White is a little lacking.  And Then There Were None this is not.  It's not that there's no tension (because there is), it's more that it's a different type of tension.  It's never quite clear whether the threat is from outside the house, inside the house or whether it's something altogether more supernatural and there were moments where I did do a quick nervous check over my shoulder but there didn't seem to be the sense of urgency that you might expect from a 'trapped with a murderer prowling' story.  Perhaps because the characters are quite a stiff upper lip bunch or because the constant drift of snow and the whitewash it leaves breeds a different type of atmosphere.  I absolutely wanted to know what the devil was going on in this mysterious house with seemingly haunted furniture but there was something less stomach-clenchingly nerve-wracking about the experience.  Like murder for the festive season, you might say!

Fear not - what Mystery in White might lack (slightly!) in the intrigue department, it more than makes up for in the charm department.  The writing has a warmth to it that just sings 'golden age'.  It's witty and the sense of humour is dry and I enjoyed every single minute I was reading it.  The characters are such a quintessentially British troop - old boreish chap that spent time in India and won't stop going on about it, a swooning, ankle twisting delicate dancer and an eccentric and super-perceptive psychic investigator.  You might not get to spend too long with them but they're a heck of a lot of fun all the same.

It's surprisingly comforting to read a 'trapped in by the snow' story without first having to have characters explain away their lack of mobile phones or wireless broadband.  It's snowing, the trains aren't running, the main characters aren't going anywhere and can't communicate with the outside world so you can just settle in and enjoy.

I don't want to say too much more.  Everything will be much better if you pick it up, ready to be wrong-footed by the shifting chronology and tangled up in a mystery or two.  When I picked it up, all I knew was what was on the blurb and this delicious quote that was printed on the back of my edition:
"The horror on the train, great though it may turn out to be, will not compare with the horror that exists here, in this house" 
Just great stuff all round.

Overall:  If you're a fan of Christie or Sayers or any other classic mystery writers and you want something festive without anybody falling in love over mince pies, this is the book for you.  At only 256 short pages, I just can't express how perfect this would be for a snowy evening indoors. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Date finished: 09 December 2015
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre: Fiction; Crime Fiction
Pictured Edition Published:  in December 2014 by The British Library

If you're looking for a bookish treat for yourself or a buddy for this Christmas, you can currently snag 3 of The British Library's Crime Classics for the price of 2 on their website and purchases will support the British Library - WIN WIN!

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Things That Made Me Happy This Week #4

I knew it had been a while since I'd posted about the things making me happy but I didn't realise quite how long.  4 months.  Ridiculous behaviour!  Let's rectify that...

1.  New books.  I haven't been on a book buying ban or anything this year but I haven't been buying books at the same pace that I have in previous years.  I think perhaps because I've been vaguely conscious that in January, I separated 10 books from my pretty vast collection of unread books while they went into storage up in the attic pending us completing the fitting out of my "reading room" (Boyfriend prefers to call it a study but what does he know?).   Out of those 10 books, I've read 3 and am in the process of reading a fourth.  ANYway, the point of this is that my book buying has slowed.  Recently though I've treated myself to a few Canongate titles and I'm so excited about all of them.  Especially, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, which has maybe the best opening paragraph ever:
"Watch your step.  Keep your wits about you; you will need them.  This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before.  You may imagine, from other stories you've read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged.  The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether"
2.  Writing about books.  It's been too long since I sat down and tapped out some thoughts on books that I've been reading and listening to.  Yesterday afternoon, though, with Boyfriend distracted by the PlayStation, I settled down with my Midori and wrote some mini reviews of some YA fantasy/dystopian audiobooks.  It wasn't the most glowing post I've ever written but it was nice to just be writing about books.

3.  My work.  I am insanely busy on the run up to Christmas and have a workload that I think is actually better suited to three people.  I'm shattered and I have a stinking cold but we're working on some really exciting and challenging projects that are reminding me just why I love my job.

4.  CHRISTMAS.  I love Christmas.  We're putting our tree up this afternoon and nipping out to the  local farm shop to put in our order for the ingredients for Christmas lunch (we're hosting my parents and Boyfriend's parents this year, which is a first that I'm really looking forward to).  We have 18 bottles of prosecco in the garage chilling for the festive season and our village is looking twinkly and beautiful.  I know it's still early for some people but I am so ready for it to be Christmas!

4.  The Wheel of Time series.  I'm re-reading the second in the series (The Great Hunt) at the moment and I adore it.  It's been absolutely years since I read the series for the first time (15 of them, I think) and going back to the beginning of the story is just so much fun and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy
.
Share your happy with the group through Ellie at Lit Nerd!  #sharethehappy

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Audiobook Mini Reviews: YA Dystopia and Fantasy

Legend by Marie Lu

I'd heard a lot of great things about this series so I was pretty keen when I saw the first in the series on my library's audiobook list.  It was a disappointment.  If you've read any YA Dystopia in recent years, chances are you'll be able to take a stab at make some pretty accurate guesses about the plot from the blurb.  Shining light in the Republic's academy, June, is devastated when her brother is murdered.  The country's most wanted criminal, Day, becomes the prime suspect and June launches off on a state-sponsored under-cover mission to track him down and exact some revenge.  When their paths cross, they realise that (shocker) everything with the Republic is not quite as it seems...

I struggled to find the story very compelling because I felt like I'd already read it.  I finished the book and felt as though all of the detail had been forgotten somewhere - there's a great ramble about "the Colonies" and how the Republic hates them.  Problem is, it's difficult for me to really get into this Republic v. Colonies struggle if it isn't fully described.  What are the Colonies?  Why does the Republic hate them so much?  What's the political position of the Colonies?  I haven't a clue.  It felt a little bit as though it was relying on the atmosphere that pervades the genre rather than creating any of its own; you're lead to believe that you hate the Republic not because you're really shown why (at least at first) but because you know that's who you're supposed to hate.

The characters are also pretty two dimensional and if it hadn't been for the fact that June and Day's chapters were narrated by different actors in the audiobook, I'd have struggled to tell them apart.  The romance is shallow and uninspiring.  All in all, I felt like as a first book, it's too light.  There isn't enough time spent building the world or developing the characters and I don't plan on picking up the next one to fill in the blanks because I kind of don't care about them.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars for being a passable re-hash of the 'Big Bad Republic Tramples Poor' trope.  It doesn't offer anything new or particularly interesting but it isn't appalling enough to inspire any major ranting.  Just ok.

The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix

This is another series that I'd heard wonderful things about.  The concept of the series is pretty great - Sabriel is adopted as a baby by the Abhorsen, a bell-wielding necromancer, and sent off to Ancelstierre as a child to learn charter magic and grow up away from her death-walking father.  When her father goes missing, the first book sees Sabriel returning to the Old Kingdom and setting off to find him with a tremendously sarcastic talking cat.  The later books are set about 20 years after the first and follow younger, new characters as they face down an impending apocalypse.

One of my main problems with the series overall was that the books are quite repetitive, which gives it away as epic fantasy for slightly younger readers.  Nix has gone to the trouble of creating a wonderful magic system for the necromancers that is centred around bells, each of which has a different name and power.  What was frustrating was that every time a bell was used, I was treated to a run-down of its characteristics and abilities.  Which was fine the first couple of times but by the end of the third book, felt a bit worn.  The characters are also very much young adults.  They can be whiny and there's a lot of growing into powers and learning about who they are and who they can be etc. etc.  It works well in the first book but is much less dexterously handled in the latter two.
 
I did like the series.  I might not sound like I did, but I did.  It's quite gritty and focusses a lot on Death (which is a place with levels that the Abhorsen can walk through that I wish had been featured more) and the undead.  It's dark in places and worth reading if you're patient and the odd bout of self-pity/whining.  Maybe they'd be better read with a few books in between to break them up and give you chance to forget some of the facts that you'll be reminded about later on.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars for having some great ideas and concepts that were just lacking in their execution for me.  It also loses stars for having a talking dog ("the Disreputable Dog") feature heavily in the second and third books because it is a) is a talking dog, which is a bit insipid and didn't appeal to me because I'm just not a dog person and b) has far too many hidden powers that conveniently manifest themselves when the going gets tough and the characters need an easy out.

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Oof.  Sorry, friends.  This set of mini reviews isn't the most positive I've ever written!  I think that maybe YA fantasy and I need to take a little break...

This offering is about Grace, a teenager living in Mercy Falls who has a frankly unhealthy preoccupation with a wolf with yellow eyes who lives in the woods behind her house.  One day she meets a boy, Sam, who has hauntingly familiar yellow eyes and...guessed where this is going yet?  Yep, this is another book that's pretty predictable.  And a bit annoying.  

The twist on the usual werewolf day/night shifts was interesting - these werewolves get to be human while its warm and turn into wolves for the winter.  Eventually, they run out of summers and turn into wolves forever.  Unfortunately for Grace, this is Sam's last summer as a human and so the lovers have to race to find a way to stay together.  Perhaps I'm a cynic but I really struggle to buy into a relationship that's based on years of Grace having watched Sam as a wolf.  There are some minor moral quandaries along the way but the plot is really just Grace and Sam canoodling and trying to plan a life together in their second month together.

My sister loves this series so it could be just me but my overwhelming feelings is just a world of 'meh'.  

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars for making me feel like I was wading through tropes.  Cross-species relationship, parents that are conveniently always busy and out of the main characters' way, InstaLove (because I'm sorry but I will not believe that meaningful 'getting to know each other' time can happen while one of the parties is a wolf) and high school friendships straining under the weight of one person's new obsession with The One.